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Below Freezing

Chicago-based singer-songwriter Edith Frost designs corporate Web pages by day, and on her personal site (accessible at www.edithfrost.com), her expertise shows. A carefully organized guide to Frost's discography, tour dates and press bites, the destination includes a gazillion links to locales ranging from the Schwa Corporation to the Stick Figure Death Theatre. Such connections are grouped into utilitarian rubrics such as "Timewasters," a category that includes the subheadings "Artiness" and "Weirdness."

Many of the artists who've added breadth and texture to the guileless tunes Frost pens could fit neatly into the last two brackets. The list of oddball luminaries who assisted this 33-year-old Texas native on her 1996 release Calling Over Time includes Gastr del Sol's Jim O'Rourke and David Grubbs, Eleventh Dream Day's Rick Rizzo, the High Llama's Sean O'Hagan and Royal Trux's Rian Murphy. As for Telescopic, Frost's most recent album, it bears the production imprint of Trux veterans Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema. But despite all the high-profile names that have graced Frost's liner notes, her compositions are possessed of a chilly grace that needs no padding. They glow like radioactive skeletons that could have been assembled only by her.

According to Frost, the privilege of working with such pedigreed cohorts can be traced to the pivotal day four years ago when she mailed a demo tape from a post office in New York, where she was living at the time, to Drag City Records, home to Palace, the Silver Jews and other skewed simpletons with a crooked finger in folk and/or country. Nine months later, worker ants at the modest yet esteemed Chicago label dug the cassette from the bottom of a review bin and were wowed enough to issue four of the tunes as a self-titled EP. Drag City subsequently had no problem drafting players for Frost's followup.

"It was Rian Murphy that set all that up," she says. "He asked them if they wanted to make a record, and they all got tapes of the 25 songs that we were going to choose from for that record. They got the tapes and did their homework. We only had one rehearsal--the night before the session started." She adds, "We recorded it in one week, but it doesn't take long for guys like that to learn. Basically, I'd just show them the song and they'd play something and ask, 'Is that cool?'"

In the vast majority of cases, it was. Throughout the Calling Over Time sessions, the supporting musicians reined in their more eclectic impulses, deferring to the yearning simplicity of Frost's melodies. The piano and acoustic guitar on the recording form its forest floor, yet here and there, a violin or pedal steel hovers in a clearing--and on the delicate processional "Denied," shimmery waves of organ filter through the mix.

Frost dismisses the guitar chops she displays on other cuts as merely functional, but she's a proficient enough player to have fronted three outfits in New York prior to her solo venture: Edith and Her Roadhouse Romeos, a rockabilly vehicle; the Holler Sisters, who covered Depression-era country acts; and the Marfa Lights, a country-swing band. She admits that she didn't traffic in the roots music of her home state until she moved to New York, whereupon she exploited her Texan-ness "to its full hilt. When you live in Texas and you're from Texas, it's no big deal. But the people that I met at work or wherever, that would be the first thing that they would think was cool about me. 'Oh, you're from Texas?' they'd say. 'I like your accent!'" The ploy has been equally effective in Chicago. "I still ham it up with that I'm-from-Texas-and-where-we-come-from-blah-blah-blah bit," she notes. "I've been using that joke for many years now, and I'm not going to quit. It works just as well here as it does anywhere else."

The CDs Frost has generated for Drag City retain ghostly traces of her country past, which may explain why Jim O'Rourke purchased a pedal-steel guitar a few days before they were to enter the studio. "That was his new toy," Frost recalls. "I don't know how he came across it, but it was totally perfect. I said, 'Let's use it! Do you know how to play that thing?' So he lays his hands on it and, of course, something totally beautiful comes out. He basically brought that thing to the studio and set it up--and that was maybe the third time he had ever touched one."

On Telescopic, Frost's associates weighed in with heavier hands and a more varied arsenal of schemes. "In Calling Over Time, we had even more ideas than we were able to pull off during the six days that we were doing it," Frost says. "So this time we were even more determined to get it all in there. Neil [Hagerty], especially, had it really organized and efficient, so that we were able to do way more overdub and spend more time on all the textures."

One thing is certain: From the first song, which opens with a blast of fuzz that eventually leads to squiggling guitar licks, Telescopic is a much different creature than its quiet predecessor. The dramatic sparsity of Frost's earlier recordings has gone by the wayside, for even when she is playing the breathy Nick Drake maiden, lonely in her castle, a bowed upright bass heats the lower regions or an ambient hiss fills the emptiness. Frost, however, views the thick, dust-storm feel of her latest as a natural progression. "If you compare it to the EP that came out, which was something I did at home on the four-track by myself, Calling Over Time was a step beyond that in terms of adding instrumentation. If we had made Telescopic back then, it would have seemed like complete chaos craziness. But if you listen from one to the next, it makes sense."

Reproducing this sound sans her stellar contributors would seem to be a difficult proposition, especially since Frost goes on the road with only a rhythm section featuring bassist/ex-boyfriend Ryan Hembrey and drummer/percussionist Jason Adasiewicz. But she doesn't fear a leaner traveling cast in part because she's currently touring with a band, Lullaby for the Working Class, from whose ranks she can draw. "They've got, like, twenty people," she points out. "I don't know how many people they're bringing, but I think at least six, so there will definitely be some monkey business as far as sitting in."

Frost's mesmerizing vocals, meanwhile, will come at audiences straight and uncut, unlike those heard on Telescopic. A smattering of numbers on Calling Over Time feature a single line augmented with wispy bits of harmonies in the chorus, but her latest sports "only one song that's just one vocal," Frost claims. "Everything else has total harmonies and double tracks and sometimes up to six or eight vocal things going on. That was me just going hog wild.

"I play around with the vocals a lot, because it's fun for me and that's my instrument," she continues. "If I'm going to mess with anything, that's what I'm going to mess with. Even on my own demos--when I do them on four-track, I usually double track it and add all these harmonies. I'm really into harmonics, so a lot of my songs are plastered with harmonies. I hear vocals with harmonies almost all the time. If I hear something on the radio, I try to make up a harmony to it."

There's a haunting familiarity about Frost's pipes; her singing seems to have drifted into the present from a distant place and time. Critics have likened her to crooners such as Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Neil Young, but she thinks other comparisons are more apt. "The first group I ever got into when I was a kid was the Carpenters, so perhaps that was an influence," she suggests. But in her opinion, "I sound a lot like Skeeter Davis."

That Frost should make a reference to a Grand Ole Opry star from the Fifties and Sixties is predictable: She has an impressive collection of what she calls "antique-music country and old timey music." But she's had to forgo building it up of late. "I have too many records now," she says. "My apartment is so small--the one I'm living in now--and I already had to get rid of one big-ass bookshelf, and I got rid of four bookshelves when I moved from New York to Chicago. So I'm down to one big one now, and it's completely stuffed. It's twelve feet of records, so I can't pursue that hobby like I used to."

Still, Frost's knowledge of the form made her a natural for inclusion on a recent tribute to swing-king Bob Wills credited to the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, a project overseen by the Mekons' Jon Langford. But while she has enjoyed the experience of collaborating with Langford and others from Chicago's indie pool, she's looking forward to forming fresh alliances for upcoming projects. "I'd like to work with some of the same people again and new people, both. I've made such great musical relationships with people that I really want to keep that going."

In a town that boasts as many stimulating musicians as Frost's Web site has links, that shouldn't be a problem.

Edith Frost, with Lullaby for the Working Class. 9 p.m. Wednesday, February 10, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $6, 303-572-0822.